Couples Communication: Is your brain being programmed not to listen?
I recently read that neuroscientists (people who study the way the brain works) are speculating that ongoing exposure to the Internet may actually alter the wiring of people’s brains—especially all those young developing brains that spend hours being inundated with multiple streams of information.
After reading this I did an informal survey and I asked people if they feel that they’ve had more difficulty focusing. I also asked about the amount of stress they’re dealing with, as well as the amount of time spent on the Internet. Not surprising, people who spend several hours a day surfing the net complained that it has been more difficult focusing on tasks that require sustained concentration—even when they feel stress isn’t a factor in their lives.
And each person agreed that their concentration problems have spilled over into their marriage or relationship.
Without a functional attention span you cannot be attentive to and listen to your partner
Distressed couples often complain that the communication process has broken down in their relationship and, more specifically, that their partner is no longer listening. Communication issues are often listed as the top reasons couples seek out marriage therapy or couples counseling and are a major contributor to marriage problems.
If the information age is creating brains that are best able to efficiently absorb small and multiple bits of information, then a likely outcome will be that more and more couples will fall prey to communication problems—after all, doesn’t every speaker need a listener who will concentrate for more than minute at a time?
Focused attention: The antidote for the distractible spouse
If exposure to thousands of quick, alternating bits of information is re-programming the concentration centers of your brain (which is great for multitasking, but terrible for long, meaningful conversations), wouldn’t it make sense that tasks that require you to steady your focus would do the opposite and end up helping your concentration?
Research shows that different meditative practices offer numerous health benefits, including improved concentration. Part of the meditative practice involves learning to focus your attention, for instance, by narrowing your awareness on the rhythms of your breathing. In a sense, you’re retraining the muscle of attention to focus rather than remain the victim to the fleeting sensations that surround you.
I believe this has direct implications for couples who struggle with information overload and are now having difficulty slowing down to listen to one another. And I don’t believe you have to commit to a full-blown meditative practice to reap the benefits of improved concentration.
The concentration challenge: Retrain your focus and become a better communicator
Hectic schedules, information overload, conflicting priorities, and multiple obligations are the new norm for many people. If this is the case, quieting your mind so you can sit and communicate with your partner may soon become the most unnatural part of your day.
In order to keep your brain and mind primed for those quiet, intimate moments, a reworking of your attention through concentration exercises may be needed. To counter the adverse effects of continuous multitasking and sensory overload, practice spending ten to fifteen minutes a day training your attention to focus on one object or task (oh, come on, you can spare ten minutes!)
For those of you now used to doing a thousand things at once, 10 minutes can feel like a lifetime. So you may need to work up to 10 minutes. Find a quiet spot (a real challenge for many) and pick something, anything, you’d like to focus your attention on—whatever you focus on, it should not be associated with anything stressful. The object of your focus can be your breath, a spot on the wall, a picture, a pleasant mental image, a repetitive thought…it’s your call.
Once you’ve picked something to focus on, turn your attention and awareness toward it. It’s that simple. Sit quietly for ten or fifteen minutes and concentrate on one thing. Don’t fret if your attention starts to wander within a few seconds or a few minutes, it’s just your brain doing what it’s become accustomed to—wandering, seeking stimulation, looking for new information, or perhaps, wondering what you’ve done with the mouse and keyboard…
When your mind wanders (which it will), simply start again. Reorient yourself to the object of your focus and sit quietly as you bring all of your focus toward that object. And please suspend judgment and self-criticism when you find your mind traveling to every place except your desired destination. Be patient.
Give yourself a least several weeks of practice and before you know it, concentrating for ten minutes will feel as natural as doing a Google search.
The goal of this concentration exercise is to help your marriage or relationship—once you’re able to focus better, you’ll become a more effective listener and more attentive to your partner. Make a conscious effort to transfer the skills you are learning in the ten-minute exercise into your marriage or relationship. Again, don’t try to rush this process—patience will pay off in the form of a more harmonious relationship, one with more attentive partners.
If you’d like to make effective communication a regular part of your marriage/relationship, check out my couples communication ebook, Communication Breakthrough: A Couples Communication Guide.
Until next time,
Rich Nicastro, Ph.D.
(Featured [top] image “I don’t like to listen” by Stockimages/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)